Wednesday, October 31, 2007

“Who are these wearing white robes, and where did they come from?”

Solemnity of All Saints, November 1, 2007:

“Who are these wearing white robes, and where did they come from?” Tomorrow we will gather at 4 p.m. at the parish cemetery and remember and pray for all of the members of our parish who have died over the course of the last year. I mention this because these two days – All Saints today and All Souls tomorrow are days that are intimately connected. I also mention this because there is a natural progression that we go through when we lose a loved one. At first we react with shock and sympathy and grief. We let our “Lord have mercys” fall gently upon their souls. But, as the days, weeks and months progress, we tend to move on to the questions of why. Why did they have to leave now? Where is my loved one? Are they now merely the victims of death?

These are thoughts that probably occur more this time of year than any other as we are continually praying for our beloved dead throughout this month of the Holy Souls. But to all of those questions of the hereafter, the Church responds with today’s feast. The celebration of All Saints Day is a rapturous reminder that the path to glory leads beyond the grave. Today, on this day, our restored humanity is on show. Today’s feast is not the gala performance of the canonized – all of those names saints we know so well, whether Blessed Mother Teresa, Saint Padre Pio, Saint Francis and so on. Today’s emphasis is on the rest of the saints in Heaven; perhaps even in particular the oh so many who will never be named.

The saints we celebrate throughout the year; whose lives are for us inspiration – perhaps because of their dramatic death for the faith, or the strength in which they lived their commitment to Christ – these saints are Heroes of the faith placed before us often in great drama. But, today we recall the every person, the ordinary, the regular, the just-like-us saints who made it to the glory of heaven because they were very simply, very profoundly, faithful to God in their lives.

Today’s feast is a celebration of the commonplace; the beatification of the ordinary; the vindication of the daisy rather than the rose. Today’s feast reminds us that common people – you and me – have an uncommon destiny. And the enduring title for the men and women who reach that destiny is “saint.” They are not destined to become so much dust, but to see God as He truly is and be in His presence for ever. The people that you and I have loved in our lives, but have gone to their eternal reward, are now eternally loved by God in Heaven. His will is that they gather around His throne, the palm of victory in their hands. And this we celebrate today.

But, this feast of All Saints is not just the feast of the blessed in Heaven. It is our feast day too. What the saints enjoy, what the holy souls anticipate, you and I are promised. Too often I hear people say that they could never be a saint. But, perhaps it is because they are only looking at the great heroes of faith and realizing that perhaps they would not have the courage to give their life for Christ. But we are, in fact, all called to be saints – most likely it will never be in a dramatic way; most likely it will be in the ordinariness of our every day lives continually being faithful to our God.

And so, this promise on God’s part for our eternal happiness requires action on our part. The terms of this action are spelled out in today’s Gospel, the Sermon on the Mount. But some people here this sermon and are dismayed. It can seem to imply that to get somewhere in this life is to get nowhere in the next. It is the poor, the mournful, the meek, and the hungry who will succeed. But, this is a false interpretation. Christ’s sermon is not an endorsement of destitution. It does not suggest that a dollar in your pocket is less Christian than a hole in your pants. It does insist, though, that worldly success and the accumulation of wealth are not ends in themselves. We are not here on earth to build an empire that magnifies ourselves; we are here primarily to serve, as Jesus did. A truly Christian society matures not in selfishness but in service. Happiness for the Christian lies not in having, but in giving. The poor in spirit accumulate wealth insofar as they give away, insofar as they love God and transform His world with gentleness, mercy, compassion, forgiveness and peace.

One final point – the most important perhaps. This is God’s feastday too. Saints don’t make it on their own. Ultimately God makes it for them. The saints living successful Christian lives and eventually moving joyously around His throne in Heaven is evidence of God’s heart and love for us. All Saints Day is God’s heart translated into happy people. It is proof of His compassionate purpose, confirmation of His universal love for us, a triumphant vindication of His will for our salvation.

“Who are these wearing white robes, and where did they come from?” As we gather around His altar, let us, in union with the saints above, give thanks to our God for His saving Grace.

May God give you peace.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Removing our masks

Thirtieth Sunday in Ordinary Time, October 28, 2007:

A tourist in Vienna is going through a graveyard when all of a sudden he hears music. No one is around, so he starts searching for the source. He finally locates the source and finds it is coming from a grave with a headstone that reads: Ludwig van Beethoven, 1770-1827. Then he realizes that the music is the 9th Symphony and it is being played backward! Puzzled, he leaves the graveyard and persuades a friend to return with him. By the time they arrive back at the grave, the music has changed. This time it is the 7th Symphony, and again, it is being played backward. Curious, the men agree to consult a music scholar. When they return with the expert, the 5th Symphony is playing, again backward. The expert notices that the symphonies are being played in the reverse order in which they were composed, the 9th, then the 7th, then the 5th. By the next day the word has spread and a throng has gathered around the grave. By now, they are all listening to the 2nd Symphony being played backward. Just then the graveyard's caretaker comes upon the group. Someone in the crowd asks him if he has an explanation for the music. "Oh, it's nothing to worry about," the caretaker says, "He's just de-composing!"

With our youth group’s Haunted House taking place this weekend, I couldn’t resist a little grave humor. Later this week we will celebrate in consecutive days, Halloween on Wednesday and then the Solemnity of All Saints on Thursday. There is an interesting juxtaposition between these two celebrations. On Halloween, there is, of course, the tradition of dressing up in costumes and putting on masks. It is a day of real pretending and covering up true identities. I’m always amazed when I go through our Haunted House how difficult it is sometimes to figure who is who. But, then, on the day after Halloween, on All Saints Day, we celebrate the exact opposite. Really, what All Saints Day is about is a celebration of all those women and men who grew out of and past the necessity of masks, costumes and pretenses. Saints after all are merely people who have been able to get past the falseness and pretending in life to the point of being simply and fully the person God created them to be. They have let go of ornaments, cover-ups, masks and pretenses and instead live in the truth of who God is and who they are in His sight.

And, in this week where we will go from costumes to saints, we have this Gospel passage from Luke that Jesus addressed “to those who were convinced of their own righteousness and despised everyone else.” It is of course, the story of two men at prayer – one a Pharisee, one a tax collector; and I would suggest, one perhaps wearing a mask and the other one on the road to sanctity, or sainthood, living in the truth of who he is before God, a sinner in need of redemption.

In Jesus’ time, the Pharisees, one of the major religious groups, were very disciplined and devout men of God. They were serious-minded believers who had committed themselves to a life of regular prayer and observance of God's Law, even going far beyond the requirements of the law. They fasted twice a week, on Mondays and Thursdays, even though the law only required people to fast once a year, on the Day of Atonement. They gave tithes of all their income and not just of the required parts. When the Pharisee in the parable said, “I thank you that I am not like the rest of humanity -- greedy, dishonest, adulterous -- or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week, and I pay tithes on my whole income,” he wasn't kidding. I bet there are very few of us today who could measure up to the visible moral standards of the Pharisees.

Tax collectors, on the other hand, were generally regarded as people of low moral standards. Because tax collectors worked for the pagan Romans, mixed up with them and constantly handled their unclean money they were said to be in a state of ritual uncleanliness. As far as the religion of the day was concerned, tax collectors were public sinners on the highway to hell. But the tax collectors knew that the voice of people is not always the voice of God. They still hoped for salvation not on the merit of any religious or moral achievements of theirs but on the gracious mercy of God.

So, who is wearing the mask and who is living in the truth? Surprisingly, we see that the Pharisee is more interested in the external appearance exalting himself. His prayer was all about the mask of his life and not about the truth of who he was before God. He was so focused on himself, his superiority to the tax collector and his own spiritual accomplishments that there was hardly room for God. By contrast, the tax collector, whatever his failings may have been, knew who God is and who he is before God. He prayed sincerely, “O God, be merciful to me a sinner.”

Just as we know on Halloween, appearances can be deceiving. The model person in the parable Jesus puts before us is, of course, the tax collector who honestly acknowledges his faults and begs for help from an all powerful God. This is a life without pretense; a life that seeks only to follow our loving God.

There is a story about a young woman who died and went to heaven. Her life on earth had been a life full of sin and when she arrived at the Pearly Gates she was told that she could only be admitted under one condition: she must return to earth an bring back the gift that God values above all others.

The young woman returned and one day came upon a young man who had just died for his faith in God. She thought, “This indeed is the gift that God values most: the blood of someone who has died for their faith.” She took a drop of the young man’s blood and brought it back to heaven. But, when she presented it, she was told there was something that God values even more than this.

She returned again and came upon an old missionary preaching God’s word among the poor. She thought, “This is indeed the gift that God values most: the sweat of the brow of someone who has spent their life bringing the good news of salvation to the poor.” But, she was again told there was something that God valued more.

Returning a third time, and a fourth time and a fifth, she kept bringing gifts, but was still told there was something God valued more highly. Finally, one day she was about to give up when she came upon a child playing at a fountain. The child was beautiful and innocent. At that moment, a man on horseback rode up and dismounted to get a drink at the fountain. When the man saw the child, he remembered his own childhood innocence. Then he looked into the fountain and saw the reflection of his own face. It was hardened and weathered. He suddenly realized that he had terribly wasted the life that God had given him. At that moment tears of repentance welled up in his eyes and rolled down his cheeks and fell into the fountain.
The young woman took one of the man’s tears and brought it back to heaven. When she presented it, there was great joy among the angels and the saints. This was, indeed, the gift God valued above all others: the tears of a repentant sinner.

“The tax collector…beat his breast and prayed, ‘O God, be merciful to me a sinner.’ I tell you, the latter went home justified, not the former; for whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”

We pray for the grace to be like this tax collector, to remove the masks, the costumes, the pretenses we wear in life and to live in the awesome reality of who we are before our God – and in this way count ourselves among the Communion of Saints.

May God give you peace.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Peace is my gift to you

"Do you think that I have come to establish peace on the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division." (Luke 12)

In the final day of our parish mission yesterday, Fr. John, as he was preparing us for the Anointing of the Sick said, "I guarantee that everyone who receives the sacrament will be healed. We may not, however, be cured." His statement was a great reminder of the fact that sometimes there is a difference between what God is offering us and what we expect to receive. God does not always cure us in the way we want or expect to be cured; but He does always offer us His healing.

I was thinking of this statement as I medidated on our Gospel passage from Luke today. Jesus says, "Do you think that I have come to establish peace on the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division." What can He possibly mean by this? Is it possible that we have somehow misunderstood the whole point of the Prince of Peace? I don't think so, but I think what is going on here is that, much like Fr. John's quote about healing, we are looking for something different than what Jesus is offering.

I think a quote from another of the Gospels can help us make sense of this passage. In John's Gospel, Jesus says, "Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give it to you." (John 14.27) In this we see that Jesus is not in fact the Prince of Division as the Luke passage might, on its surface, let us believe. They key is that Jesus says, "Not as the world gives peace." In other words, if you thought that the peace that Jesus gives will lead to a life that has no stress, no troubles, no illness, no conflict - then you may have been expecting something different than what Jesus was offering.

What you can expect from the peace of Christ is the ability to handle any of these things that may come your way; all of which are a part of a little thing we call life. What you can expect from the peace of Christ that is the gift He gives us is the comforting knowledge that if you follow His way, you will enter into the joy of His Kingdom.

What sometimes happens, though, when we follow Jesus is that those who may be around us who have not yet embraced the Lord, may find it hard to accept the newness of our life. And so, there may be division even between father and son, mother and daughter, etc.

I have shared my own vocation story enough for you to know that mine was an Amazing Grace conversion: I once was lost, but now I am found. Well, upon being found, one of the things that I experienced was that a good number of the friends I was "lost" with could not accept the working of Jesus in my life and those relationships ended. I pray for each of them every day and hope that God will touch their lives as well.

Jesus wants us to live in His peace; and to share that peace with the world - a peace that gives us the strength and ability to handle what ever comes our way in life and to be comforted in the knowledge that our God is with us and will lead us to His Heavenly Kingdom.

May God give you peace!

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

A little chuckle

Jesus and Satan were having an ongoing argument about who was better on the computer. They had been going at it for days, and frankly God was tired of hearing all the bickering.

Finally fed up, God said, "THAT'S IT! I have had enough. I am going to set up a test that will run for two hours, and from those results, I will judge who does the better job."

So Satan and Jesus sat down at the keyboards and typed away.They moused. They faxed. They e-mailed. They e-mailed with attachments.They downloaded. They did spreadsheets. They wrote reports.They created labels and cards. They created charts and graphs.They did some genealogy reports. They did every job known to man.

Jesus worked with heavenly efficiency. Satan was faster than h-e-double hockey sticks.

Then, ten minutes before their time was up, lightning suddenly flashed across the sky, thunder rolled, rain poured, and, of course, the power went off.

Satan stared at his blank screen and screamed every curse word known in the underworld.

Jesus just sighed. Finally the electricity came back on, and each of them restarted their computers. Satan started searching frantically, screaming: "It's gone! It's all GONE! I lost everything when the power went out!"

Meanwhile, Jesus quietly started printing out all of his files from the past two hours of work. Satan observed this and became irate."Wait!" he screamed. "That's not fair! He cheated! How come he has all his work and I don't have any?"

God just shrugged and said, "JESUS SAVES."

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Giving thanks


“And he fell at the feet of Jesus and thanked him.”

You know, w e hear and say the word “thanks” fairly often - though perhaps not often enough and usually without much thought. Thanksgiving Day is our most popular non-religious national holiday, yet few of us recognize and acknowledge the religious dimension of that day. Last Sunday’s parable of the master and servant reminded us that we are God’s servants and have no reason to expect God to thank us for doing what God asks of us. But while God may have no obligation to thank us, we certainly have an obligation to thank God. Today’s Scripture share with us strongly this theme of giving thanks to God.

The Hebrew word hodah, generally translated as “give thanks,” really means more fully to “confess, profess or state publicly.” In the Bible, to give thanks means to state publicly that at this moment God was at work. That moment could be the creation of the world or ancient Israel’s exodus from Egypt; that moment could be Noah on the seas, David dancing before the Ark of the Covenant, the night the wise men saw that star in the Heavens or the moment that Mary gave birth to a Savior. That moment could be personal too – our own rescue from danger or recovery from illness. Whatever the moment, thanksgiving in the Bible is always directed to God, and always involves a public profession and is profoundly religious.

In our first reading, Naaman the Syrian is healed from leprosy. His response is a great example of the biblical approach to thanksgiving. Having been healed of his leprosy, Naaman recognizes that God was powerfully at work through Elisha the prophet, and he makes a public profession of his conviction. He said, “Now I know that there is no God in all the earth, except in Israel” and promises to offer sacrifice only to Yahweh. Likewise, Psalm 98 is a public act of thanks for God’s goodness, “Sing to the Lord a new song, for He has done wondrous deeds!”

This concept of thanksgiving as public witness to God’s action is also brought out in our Gospel account of the healing of the 10 lepers. Jesus is on his way from Galilee to Jerusalem and these lepers approach him crying out, “Jesus, Master! Have pity on us!” When Jesus tells them to show themselves to the priests, they go on their way. This took great faith, since there had been no explicit healing action or word from Jesus. He didn’t say, “You are healed” or touch them, but rather just said, “Go.” But, they believed in Jesus’ power to heal them, and on their way they indeed were healed.

All’s well that ends well. Not quite. Only one of the healed lepers returns to Jesus to give public witness to God about his healing and so Jesus asks, “Has none but this foreigner returned to give thanks to God?”

The popular media have reduced the Thanksgiving holiday to football, turkey, sentimental family scenes and believe it or not – Christmas shopping. These things are fine in themselves, but they tend to obscure the real meaning of giving thanks as something intimately connected to our relationship with God. Thanksgiving begins with an acknowledgement of God’s actions in our world – in our lives – and on our behalf. In thanking God we proclaim publicly who God is (our creator, our redeemer, our sustainer, our healer), who we are (God’s servants) and what God has done for us individually and collectively.

You know, the word “Eucharist” means in Greek “thanksgiving.” When we celebrate the Eucharist – as we do today and every Sunday – we are proclaiming God’s mighty acts on our behalf, especially in Jesus’ life, death and resurrection.

We today are no different than Namaan or the 10 lepers. We too need to develop an attitude of gratitude; an awareness that we have indeed been blessed – blessed with family, friends, freedom, faith; blessed to be gathered here today as God’s holy people, in this holy place. God is real and He is constantly working on our behalf. Let us have hearts that are grateful and lives that proclaim that thanks to God for His profound action in our lives. Let us be the one among the many who return, glorifying God in a loud voice, falling at the feet of Jesus thanking Him.

Thank you Jesus.

May God give you peace.

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

A lot of class

On Sunday, we had the great opportunity to celebrate a very special Mass. The friars pictured above are all my classmates. We celebrated last month (August 23rd) our 10th anniversary of Solemn Profession of Vows. Pictured are Friars Larry Parent, Edwin Paniagua, Michael Della Penna, Vit Fiala (who presided at our Mass), Michael MacInnis, James Welch and me.
We were able to celebrate our Mass in the Chapel of Tears at the Basilica of Our Lady of the Angels, the mother church of the Franciscan Order.

Changing the impossible

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